by Caroline Colebrook
TRAIN drivers employed by South West Trains walked out on a 24-hour strike last Tuesday, crippling commuter services on some of the busiest routes into London.
Keith Norman, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef thanked all his members who had taken part in the strike but put the blame for the dispute firmly on the employer, who, he said, “preferred a punch-up to a settlement”.
The dispute is the result of a number of issues, which include the high-handedness of SWT management.
The conflict began with a small, local dispute in Waterloo, where there was a disagreement over the company providing taxis for drivers on early and late duties.
Aslef says this could have been easily settled, “but we believe management engineered a dispute”. During the resulting action, SWT drafted in managers to drive trains.
This was in direct contravention of an existing agreement which says managers will only drive trains in cases of health, safety or the possibility of civil unrest.
The union was also concerned at the safety risks: one manager, although technically competent, had not driven a train alone for a decade. The union accused the company of being more concerned with scoring industrial relations points than with the safety of passengers.
The dispute was then inflamed when it was shown that SWT was bringing in managers to drive trains from as far away as Bournemouth – and, to add insult to injury fetched them in by taxi!
Aslef accordingly held a ballot of all its members in SWT which overwhelmingly supported the industrial action. Keith Norman said it was astonishing that since he had informed the company of the intention to strike, SWT had only approached the union at national level to make legal threats – and not to seek discussions aimed at reaching an agreement.
SWT management claimed to be running one train in 10 but the union described this as “wishful thinking” and dismissed it as propaganda.
Speaking on most national radio stations on Tuesday morning, Keith Norman accused management of “wanting a punch-up and using the public as its boxing-gloves”.
He said SWT had spent masses of money on legal threats and newspaper adverts – but had made no attempts to sit down and negotiate a settlement.
“I have been in London all weekend prepared to speak to the company,” he said, “but they have been too busy making excuses to do anything positive. The union has shown its organising abilities today – but I’m sure the public would prefer us to be demonstrating our negotiating skills.
“Unfortunately, this would involve management coming to the table – which it is reluctant to do.”
Keith Norman said the union cannot allow management to disregard agreements it has entered into. “When we shake hands, we deliver. When they make an agreement they apply it if its convenient.
“Industrial relations cannot function like that. Today we were forced to make a stand.”
The union’s national organiser Andy Reed said the strike was solid in the areas around Portsmouth and Basingstoke which he visited this morning.
“None of our members wanted this,” he said, “but they are not the sort of people who can be threatened or intimidated.”
A guard on one service told the union one 12-coach train, driven by a manager, had pulled into a nine-coach platform at Waterloo –endorsing the union’s safety arguments.